Alynda Lee Segarra doesn’t even seem real.
Never mind that she is standing before a sold-out crowd at The Independent in several layers of black eyeliner, no doubt inspired by the doo-wop groups she grew up absorbing in her native Bronx, and a blindingly spangled suit—almost too wild to accept from someone who writes such serious, and seriously good, folk songs. It’s her story, which sounds like everyone’s life dream, that makes her seem so impossible: she dropped out of high school to ride the rails and hitch her way around the U.S. She eventually landed in New Orleans, where she cobbled together her band, Hurray for the Riff Raff, who are currently riding high on the release of Small Town Heroes and a wealth of love from Americana, roots, and country fans. All before the age of 26, which is what she is now.
But here she is, live and in person and in San Francisco, where she has been before, if HFTRR’s opening song is to be believed. After a swampy set from Nashville openers Clear Plastic Masks (who in all earnestness would fit in nicely with our local neo-blues scene—please consider moving out here, gentlemen), Alynda and her band of 21st century misfits kicked things off with “The New SF Bay Blues,” a tale of romantic abandonment, set on the Bay and delivered in the plaintive tradition of acoustic ballads of yesteryear.
San Franciscans like to think they know Americana—we wouldn’t have had the Summer of Love without folk, after all—and though we have plenty of bands that borrow heavily from it and are great at what they do, Californians will never be able to capture the dusty charm of roots music like a Southern band can. Though Alynda’s originally from New York City, HFTRR are hailed as saviors of the genre, and out here, they’re a lot closer to what people would consider “real” country, as opposed to, say, the stuff you’d find down at The Saddle Rack. HFTRR didn’t spare the twang, and the crowd readily and hungrily accepted it. Following “SF Bay Blues” was “Look Out Mama,” arguably their best-known song, and the opening notes set off a chain of excited yelps from the audience.
Like the travelers they are, the band meandered through a set of old standards and new selections from Small Town Heroes. Though HFTRR tunes, like all cowboy songs worth their dirt, can dip into melancholy territory every now and then, everything brought to the stage that night got an ebullient makeover. “The Body Electric,” Segarra’s update on traditional murder ballads of old, was kept buoyant with some skillful fiddlin’, and“Levon’s Dream,” a down-tempo breather on Heroes, was transformed into a fuzzed-out burner, with Clear Plastic Masks’ Matt Menold lending a hand on guitar. That’s what HFTRR do best: align the best of American musical traditions with 21st-century appeal and making you forget everything you thought you knew about all of it.
And while you’re standing there, believing every word they say about the enchantment of New Orleans and riding the Western plains (which you’d think would sound silly in 2014, but coming from them, it just sounds like their job description), you start to realize something. We are so comfortable in our belief that we’re so worldly out here in the Bay, but when faced with Hurray for the Riff Raff’s stew of influences, hand-picked from all across this nation, you start to truly understand that there’s a whole other country out there; a completely different country that we’re a part of and yet that we only deign to associate ourselves with when it’s convenient for us. And as Alynda Lee picks away on a banjo, it’s tough not to not start seriously thinking about how hard it would be for you to quit your job and hop a freight train to the horizon.